Communicating Bad News to Clients

Written by lewsauder

October 1, 2013

Communicating Bad News to Clients

Communicating bad news to clients

To paraphrase a common saying, stuff happens.  No one knows that more than a client-serving consultant.  Whether you’re working on a large project or working independently.  Rarely does everything go as planned.  At some time, you find yourself face to face with the client with the dreaded task of reporting bad news.  The project is late, a critical piece was forgotten or maybe a key team member has submitted her resignation. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news.  But when that time comes, there are some ways to make it a little less painless.

Considerations for communicating bad news to clients

The earlier the better

For many, it’s human nature to put off unpleasant tasks as long as possible.  If you need to report bad news to someone, if they’re busy, maybe it would be better to wait until they’re not so busy. That’s a great way to make bad news even worse.  The longer you wait to inform the client, the worse they will react. It’s important to get in front of them as soon as possible.

Executives don’t like surprises

Almost every executive I’ve worked with has told me this.  And I’ve always found it to be the hardest part of reporting bad news.  Isn’t all bad news a surprise? In my view, anything that doesn’t go as planned is a surprise.  What they really mean is, like the above tip, they don’t want you to wait too long to tell them. More than that, they don’t want to find out in a status meeting with ten other people.  Executives want a heads-up ahead of others so they can gather their thoughts and have a response ready.

For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants

Don’t sugar-coat it

Bad news is bad news.  If you report to the executive that your vendor won’t be able to deliver on their promised date, but that you think it’s only a minor blip, you may be setting yourself up to fail.  When that missed date ends up delaying your project by three months, the “stuff” that happens is sure to hit the fan.  Suddenly, your executive is surprised (see previous tip). Telling it like it is may be hard.  You may get yelled at for reasons outside of your control.  But that beats getting yelled at for reasons within your control any day.

Explain the impact

Invariably, when I’ve reported bad news to an executive, the first question out of her mouth is, “How will this impact the project?” Most executives aren’t deep enough into the weeds to understand all of the ramifications of reported bad news.  If a vendor misses their date, the executive may not be close enough to know all of the dependencies on that date. Although it’s important to report bad news as early as possible, it’s more important to take a little time to determine how it will impact the project.  If you don’t know the impact, how do you know whether it’s a big enough issue to bother her with? Determining how the issue will affect the project from a time and cost perspective will give the executive critical information to decide on an appropriate resolution.

Propose possible solutions

After determining the impact on the project, the most common next question is “What do you plan to do about it?” I’ve learned from experience that not having a response makes the bad news worse. It is important to spend some time thinking about possible solutions.  If there are other team members available, brainstorming ideas can be helpful. When you go to the executive with bad news and pre-empt their question with something like, “We’ve done some analysis and came up with a couple of options to deal with the situation.” The executive may discount all of your options.  But in all likelihood, they will take solace in the fact that you’ve put some thought into it and haven’t just dumped it in their lap to resolve.

See my related post: Client Expectation Management

No excuses, no blame

Let’s go back to the situation where the external vendor missed their date, delaying the project by three months.  Perhaps you never liked this vendor.  Selecting this vendor was not your decision. Throwing that in the executive’s face won’t help them solve the problem.  It makes the problem worse.  People make mistakes and they may eventually face consequences for those mistakes. When things go wrong, the executive wants to know what you’re doing to resolve the problem.  They aren’t interested in all the reasons that it’s not your fault.

Be proactive

Anticipating issues before they occur can prevent a lot of future pain.  Risk analysis is an activity that should be performed early on in a client engagement and on a regular basis.  Identifying any potential issues ahead of time prepares you on two fronts.  First, you can develop strategies to prevent those issues from occurring.  Secondly, you can prepare strategies for dealing with the issue in case it can’t be prevented.

Sometimes the only thing worse than receiving bad news is being the one that reports it.  While it isn’t something many people enjoy, there are ways to make it easier on the executive you report to, which in turn, makes it easier on you.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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